The Founding of Rome

Faustulus bringing Romulus and Remus to his wife Lucrezia, by Felice Cattaneo

By tradition, the city of Rome was founded in 753 B.C.* The stories about the founding of Rome are conflicting, but there are two main founding figures to look out for: Romulus (after whom the city may have been named) and Aeneas. It is also possible that Evander of Arcadia founded Rome. Much of the information on the founding of Rome comes from the first book of Livy's history of Rome.

Aeneas as Founder of Rome

The Trojan prince Aeneas, an important figure linking the Romans with the Trojans and the goddess Venus, is sometimes credited with the founding of Rome as the culmination of his post-Trojan War adventures, but the version of the Roman foundation myth that is most familiar is that of Romulus, the first king of Rome

The Romulus and Remus Myth

Romulus and Remus were twin brothers, the sons of a vestal virgin named Rhea Silvia (also called Ilia) and the god Mars, according to legend. Since vestal virgins could be buried alive if they violated their chastity vows, whoever forced Rhea Silvia to enter the equivalent of an ancient convent assumed that Rhea Silvia would remain childless.

The grandfather and great-uncle of the twins were Numitor and Amulius, who between them divided the wealth and kingdom of Alba Longa (a city founded by Aeneas' son Ascanius), but then Amulius seized Numitor's share and became sole ruler. To prevent retaliation by the offspring of his brother, Amulius made his niece a vestal virgin. When Rhea became pregnant, her life was spared because of the special pleading of Amulius' daughter Antho. Although she kept her life, Rhea was imprisoned.

Contrary to plan, the virgin Rhea was impregnated by the god Mars. When the twin boys were born, Amulius wished to have them killed, and so bid someone, perhaps Faustulus, a swineherd, expose the boys. Faustulus left the twins on the river bank where a she-wolf nursed them, and a woodpecker fed and guarded them until Faustulus took them into his care again. The two boys were well educated by Faustulus and his wife, Acca Larentia. They grew up to be strong and attractive.

" They say that his name was Faustulus; and that they were carried by him to his homestead and given to his wife Larentia to be brought up. Some are of the opinion that Larentia was called Lupa among the shepherds from her being a common prostitute, and hence an opening was afforded for the marvellous story."
—Livy Book I

As adults, Remus found himself imprisoned, and in the presence of Numitor, who determined from his age that Remus and his twin brother could be his grandsons. Learning of Remus' predicament, Faustulus told Romulus the truth of his birth and sent him off to rescue his brother.

Amulius was despised, and so Romulus drew a crowd of supporters as he approached Alba Longa to kill the king. The twins re-installed their grandfather Numitor on the throne and freed their mother who had been imprisoned for her crime.

The Establishment of Rome

Since Numitor now ruled Alba Longa, the boys needed their own kingdom and settled in the area in which they had been raised, but the two young men couldn't decide on the exact site and started building separate sets of walls around different hills: Romulus, around the Palatine; Remus, around the Aventine. There they took auguries to see which area the gods favored. On the basis of conflicting omens, each twin claimed his was the site of the city. An angry Remus jumped over Romulus' wall and Romulus killed him.

Rome was therefore named after Romulus:

" A more common account is that Remus, in derision of his brother, leaped over the newly-erected walls, and was thereupon slain by Romulus in a fit of passion, who, mocking him, added words to this effect:" So perish every one hereafter, who shall leap over my walls." Thus Romulus obtained possession of supreme power for himself alone. The city, when built, was called after the name of its founder."
—Livy Book I

Aeneas and Alba Longa

Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus and the mortal Anchises, left the burning city of Troy at the end of the Trojan War, with his son Ascanius. After many adventures, which the Roman poet Vergil or Virgil describes in the Aeneid, Aeneas and his son arrived at the city of Laurentum on the west coast of Italy. Aeneas married Lavinia, the daughter of a local king, Latinus, and founded the town of Lavinium in honor of his wife. Ascanius, son of Aeneas, decided to build a new city, which he named Alba Longa, under the Alban mountain.

Alba Longa was the hometown of Romulus and Remus, who were separated from Aeneas by about a dozen generations.

"Aeneas was hospitably entertained at the house of Latinus; there Latinus, in the presence of his household gods, cemented the public league by a family one, by giving Aeneas his daughter in marriage. This event fully confirmed the Trojans in the hope of at length terminating their wanderings by a lasting and permanent settlement. They built a town, which Aeneas called Lavinium after the name of his wife. Shortly afterward also, a son was the issue of the recently concluded marriage, to whom his parents gave the name of Ascanius."
—Livy Book I

Plutarch on Possible Founders of Rome

"... Roma, from whom this city was so called, was the daughter of Italus and Leucaria; or, by another account, of Telephus, Hercules's son, and that she was married to Aeneas, or ... to Ascanius, Aeneas's son. Some tell us that Romanus, the son of Ulysses and Circe, built it; some, Romus the son of Emathion, Diomede having sent him from Troy; and others, Romus, king of the Latins, after driving out the Tyrrhenians, who had come from Thessaly into Lydia, and from thence into Italy."

Isidore of Seville on Evander and the Founding of Rome

There is a line (313) in the 8th book of the Aeneid that suggests Evander of Arcadia founded Rome. Isidore of Seville reports this as one of the stories told about the founding of Rome. 

" A banish'd band,
Driv'n with Evander from th' Arcadian land,
Have planted here, and plac'd on high their walls;
Their town the founder Pallanteum calls,
Deriv'd from Pallas, his great-grandsire's name:
But the fierce Latians old possession claim,
With war infesting the new colony.
These make thy friends, and on their aid rely.
—Dryden translation from Book 8 of the Aeneid.

Points to Note About the Roman Founding Legend

  • Rome was founded on 21 April 753 B.C., according to tradition. It was celebrated in Rome with the festival of Parilia.
  • Because a woodpecker tended to the twins, the woodpecker was sacred to Rome.
  • In some versions of the story, Rhea was drowned and then married the river god Tiber.
  • When Faustulus first let the twins go, they floated into the river and then washed ashore at the base of a fig tree. This was the site where they built their city.
  • In some versions, Acca Larentalia was a prostitute.
  • The stories of the founding of Rome are just that, stories. The legends, as a whole, are not confirmed by tangible evidence although they can be used to help interpret some bits of archaeological data.

* 753 B.C. is an important year to know since some Romans reckoned their years from this beginning time (ab urbe condita), although the names of the consuls were more commonly used to pinpoint a year. When viewing Roman dates you may see them listed as xyz year A.U.C., which means "xyz years from (after) the founding of the city." You might write the year 44 B.C. as 710 A.U.C. and the year A.D. 2010 as 2763 A.U.C.; the latter, in other words, 2763 years from the founding of Rome.